Playing the Ponies

Part II



Irish and American horse racing developed along lines both similar and uniquely different than did British horse racing (discussed in the last issue of Fiddler), which had consequences for the interplay of fiddlers and fiddling with horse racing in those countries. 


The Irish affinity for the horse and horse racing is well-known and stems from ancient association. When the pirates of Newgrange migrated west some 4,000 years ago, legend has it, they went in search of the Burren, a geological feature in County Clare, guided by their prophet, Mara. They eventually came to Galway where they invented horse racing to amuse the Fianna (a warrior band established to protect the high king of Ireland), who in turn gave them hurley sticks. Some date Irish horse racing back to the 3rd century A.D., when chariot races were held at the cuireach, the Irish Gaelic word meaning ‘place of the running horse’, or a race course. A racecourse at the County Kildare location exists today under the name The Curragh, and is the headquarters of flat racing in Ireland. Formally organized racing in Ireland is under the auspices of the Turf Club, founded in 1790, which directly evolved from an organization called the Sportsmen of the Curragh, formed in the Rose and Bottle in Dublin’s Dame Street in November, 1749, to oversee the racing that had resumed at Curragh regularly in 1741. Today, the Turf Club oversees both flat and national hunt racing, as well as point-to-point racing on the island. The Turf Club is also the proprietor of the Curragh Racecourse, which it administers.


Prior to the Battle of the Boyne, there had been a long history of horse racing in Ireland, usually match races, where two owners pitted their horses against one another. One such race was recorded at the Curragh in 1634, when the Earl of Ormond’s horse beat Lord Digby’s horse over a four mile course.  In 1665 Lord Deputy Essex presided over a match race at Sandymount, Dubin, attended by 5,000 spectators, where he awarded a valuable plate to the victor. Charles II, the “Merry Monarch”, did much for Irish racing, as he had done for British racing. He grated a Royal Charter in 1685 to Down Royal racecourse “to encourage racing and breeding” in the country. In the year 1690 the prize of a silver bell was won at Down Royal (Downpatrick) by a brown charger named the Byerley Turk, so called because he had been captured in 1688 in Hungary at the siege of Buda against Turkish forces by Captain Robert Byerley of the 6th Dragoon Guards, who served under William of Orange. The Byerley Turk then went on to fight with Byerley at the Boyne with the Williamite forces, and in the subsequent Irish Wars.


Throughout the next, 18th, century Irish racing and breed-lines continued to develop. There were series of races at Curragh called ‘King’s Plates’ races—often a dozen each season—run for a prize worth 100 guineas, and these were the highlight of  Irish racing at the time. The first steeplechase race took place in County Cork in 1752, a match race over countryside, literally from steeple to steeple.


However, the typical Irishman’s association with races and horses was severely curtailed, in contrast to his English or Scottish cousin.  First, following the Williamite victory came the Penal Laws, meant to suppress the nationalist urging of the Irish and to consolidate British and Protestant rule throughout the country. Included in the Penal laws were restrictions on the ownership of land and horses by the native, Catholic, Irish.  The breeding of thoroughbred horses and the preparation of horses for racing was a time consuming and very costly operation.  With diminished financial resources, curtailed and restricted land use, and discriminatory legal proceedings, the Catholic Irish gentry found horse racing increasingly closed to them, and thus horseracing came to be the provenance of Protestant gentry of English extraction.  Even as a spectator sport, thoroughbred horse racing was increasingly closed to the Irish Catholic population, who loved the sport as much as any.  When they attended races in large numbers, in the growing enthusiasm for the developing sport in Ireland, the powers that governed the island perceived them a potential threat. For example, the crowds of Irish who attended the races held at the village of Crumlin, just outside Dublin, were accused of indulging in assemblies which led to “dissipation, club-law and tumult,” according to the Freeman’s Journal, a periodical that demanded the legal suppression of such meetings. In 1791 horse racing in the vicinity of the ruling city of Dublin was prohibited.  When the Irish did revolt against English rule in 1798 the Curragh races were cancelled altogether, “owing to the disturbed state of the country.”


In the 19th century, after the suppression of the United Irishmen, racing continued to develop, principally in the venues of Down Royal, Curragh, Cork Park, Galway and Bellewstown. The latter, a course in County Meath, had its first race under formal Turf Club rules in 1805, with the prize of a King’s Plate of 100 Guineas being added in 1808. The track was well-situated on the plateau of Crockafotha, with views of the sea, the Mountains of Mourne, and the town of Drogheda.  It was a popular draw for gentry and commoners alike. King George IV visited Curragh in 1821 to great fanfare and presented the Royal Whip, a trophy whose handle was decorated with gold shamrocks, to encourage horse breeding in Ireland. In the late 1840’s, however, the Great Famine gripped Ireland, with the result that starvation, a severely depleted economy, and depopulation set back the sport of horse racing in Ireland for some time to come. It was not until the waning years of the 19th century that Irish thoroughbred racing recovered, largely through the efforts of Richard Eyre “Boss” Croker, an Irish-American who had fought his way up the mean streets of New York to power in Tammany Hall. He returned to Ireland to establish a successful stud, and, against long odds, his horse Orby won the exclusive Epsom Derby in England, to the joy of Ireland. His manager was accosted by a Dublin shawlie sometime later, who gushed, “Thank God and you, sir, that we have lived to see a Catholic horse win the Derby!”


Horse racing in America was scarcely less old than in Britain and Ireland.  In fact, only fourteen years after John Playford celebrated the return of music and dancing in England with the Restoration of Charles II with the publication of his English Dancing Master in 1651, a racecourse was laid out on Long Island by British settlers.  However, for well over the next two centuries horse racing remained a local pastime, following the pattern of match races and adjunct entertainments at local fairs and celebrations that characterized the rural areas of Ireland, England and Scotland.  It was not until after the American Civil War that racing in America was organized on a national level, ushering in an era of huge success.  In fact, during the ‘Gilded Age’ years the rapid rise of industrialization,  an economy infused by ready capital, and interest in speculation and gambling resulted in an explosion of interest in the sport.  By 1890 some 314 race tracks operated throughout the country.  It was not until 1894, however, that the most prominent track and stable owners met in New York to form an American Jockey Club, the counterpart to the English organization, which, like its parent overseas, codified the various rules and regulations regarding the different tracks and races, and helped organize and develop the sport along codified lines. 


The Jockey Club in America also helped mitigate organized crime which had corrupted various tracks in the absence of a central governing authority. Ultimately, however, it was neither the criminal element, nor corruption—except obliquely—that led to a near-extinction of horse racing in America.  Rather it was the wave of anti-gambling sentiment in America in the early 1900’s that led many states to ban bookmaking.  Some twenty years after the heyday of 1890, in 1908, there were only 25 tracks still operating. It was state interest in sharing in the lucrative funds of gambling that returned horse racing to the mainstream of sporting America, when legislature after legislature determined that pari-mutual betting was not only more secure, but it allowed the state to share in the proceeds of monies wagered. By the end of World War I prosperity had returned to the country, and crowds had been energized by such magnificent animals as Man o’ War, so that spectating as well as gambling was of interest.


            Surprisingly, there are relatively few pieces in Irish or American fiddling tradition named for specific horse racing courses.  Especially when compared to English and Scottish traditions, the Irish tradition has been relatively silent with regard to the more elite aspects of the sport. While there are over twenty-five tunes composed by musicians—fiddlers, mostly—in honor of race courses in Britain, there are only a very few that are directly associated with Irish courses, and none titled for American tracks. Perhaps this is attributable to timing, for well-established racecourses were relatively late fixtures in the sporting world, and the accompanying social scene to the racing season was more diffuse. The situation probably afforded fewer opportunities for employment for American fiddlers than the British venues of the late 18th century, but at any rate, the brass band had supplanted the fiddler as the prominent musical accompaniment to 19th century events. As the 18th century wore well into the 19th, it was as interested consumers that horseracing made the biggest impact on fiddlers. Given that popular culture always intrudes upon and influences traditional art, it wasn’t long before melodies and titles began to commemorate aspects of the sport apart from patronage or venue seeking, out of personal interest or investment in the sport, or simply plain enthusiasm. These tunes were composed and disseminated in the same anonymous process of most traditional fiddle tunes, rather than printed for publication for a specific audience.


               For example, three tunes in the Irish repertoire can be assumed to have been inspired simply by love of racing, or the eager anticipation of an event. “Off to the Races” is a jig, apparently of no great antiquity, collected independently by Brendan Breathnach and Bernard Flaherty from the playing of fiddlers from County Sligo. It presumably expresses the feelings of one setting off on a racing holiday to a favorite track. The quaintly titled “Little Grey Mare of the Branches” is a duple-time air collected by P.W. Joyce in 1846 from the fiddling of Hugh O’Beirne, a professional fiddler from Ballinamore, County Leitrim, from whom other Irish collectors also gleaned material. He was described as “a man of exceptional musical taste and culture,” and he can be credited with rescuing many Irish tunes from oblivion through his contact with Joyce and his colleagues. Joyce reveals the title’s connection with horseracing with the brief note “i.e. that won the races.” The hornpipe “Horse and Jockey” appears in O’Neill’s Dance Music of Ireland (1907), and the Captain evidently thought enough of it to reprint it in his smaller 1915 publication, O’Neill’s Irish Music. 


               Scotland too, celebrated the modest delights associated with racing, as well as the elite (discussed in the last issue of Fiddler). An old Scottish jig, “John Paterson’s Mare,” probably originating from Ayrshire—Robert Burns’ country—was (according to Chambers, 1862) the air to a song that was "a rough ballad descriptive of the confused horse-race which used to take place at all country bridals long ago, between the home of the bride's father and that of her husband.” Under the title “The Black and the Brown” the jig was transformed into a showcase piece by Northumbrian smallpipers, early among them professional piper John Peacock (1754-1817, the last of the Newcastle Waits, or musical watchmen), who published the melody with the characteristic numerous variation sets in his c. 1800 publication. Both titles are captured in the beginning lines of the song:


The black and the brown
Cam nearest the town,
But Paterson's mare she came foremost;
The dun and the gray
Kept farthest away,
But Paterson's mare she came foremost.
Fy, whip her in, whip her out,
Six shillings in a clout,
O'er the kirk-style and away wi' her!


A previous title for the tune was, according to Hogg, “She's yours, she's yours, she's nae mair ours,” who says it was always played at the taking away of the bride. Similarly, Henderson Berwick (1856, 106), indicates it was a bridal tune and gives the lines—


She's yours! She's yours!

She's nae mair ours—

Owre the Kirk-style

And away wi' her!


—the last lines of which, having appeared in the racing song at a bridal event, confuse the issue between the eager escape of the bridal couple from the party, and the fury of the horse race! The Gows printed “John Paterson’s Mare” in their Complete Repository, book 2 (1802), albeit under the title “New Market.” Their re-titling of older tunes was a fairly common occurrence in their publications, but this one seems unfortunate as it retains only the horse racing associations (as Newmarket was the premier English racecourse of the day), and distances it from the rich character of the country wedding.


            The melodic motifs contained in “John Paterson’s Mare” have been around for quite some time. As Cowdery (1990) points out, the jig is a (loose) adaptation of the reel “The Cameronian Rant,” and, in fact, it has been noticed by several writers that some versions of the melodic motif straddle meters.  On the island of Whalsey in the Shetlands, for example, the jig is rendered back into a reel called “The Black and the Brown,” played in cross tuning (AEae) by fiddler John Irvine, for the “bedding of the bride” ceremony at the end of the 19th century. Influential Shetland fiddler John Stickle (1875-1957, descendent of a shipwrecked German sailor) resident of Unst, one of the northernmost islands in the chain, played it in the key of ‘G’. Cooke (1986) found the ‘Paterson’ rhyme still in tradition in the Shetlands in the 1970s:


The black and the brown gaed oot o the town,

And John Paterson’s mare gaed foremost.


The amount of variation among what can loosely be described as a tune family is not surprising—versions of the melody have appeared for centuries in the English, Scottish and Irish traditions of several instruments: fiddle, Highland bagpipe, Northumbrian smallpipes, etc.


            It must have been pure enthusiasm that led to the occasional celebration of racehorses themselves in traditional music. Perhaps it was an appreciation of the complex, and quite genealogical, process of breeding thoroughbred race horses; perhaps simply an affinity for the magnificent animals; or perhaps the desire to honor a prized champion.  That certainly was the case with another Northumbrian melody called variously “Fenwick o’ Bywell,” “Horse and Away to Newmarket,” “Newmarket Races” (in John Peacock’s collection) or—and my favorite—“Galloping Ower the Cow Hill” (from Robert Bewick’s old manuscript collection). The two former of these titles, relates Bruce and Stokoe (1882), “refer to a ballad once sung to the tune, celebrating a match at Newmarket between a mare called Duchess, belonging to the then Fenwick of Bywell, and a celebrated Newmarket racehorse. Tradition states that the north country horse won the race (which was run in heats), but with nothing to spare. We have heard the ballad sung by an old jockey about forty years ago (c. 1840), but it is now lost, and we can only recall to memory the first two lines—


Fenwick o' Bywell's off to Newmarket,

He'll be there or we get started.”


The authors point out the melody’s similarity to the familiar Irish jig “Garryowen,” but declare that it has sufficient “independence of character” to be included in their collection.


            What Stokoe and Bruce described as ‘local traditional memory’ about the racehorse is actually fact.  Duchess was owned by William Fenwick of Bywell, a descendent of a horse-breeding, landed family in Northumberland who produced generations of fine thoroughbreds.  Duchess had been bred by Newmarket trainer Thomas Panton and sold to Fenwick as a youngster.  She was an outstanding race mare, and won the Great Subscription Purse at both York and Hambleton, and numerous King’s Plates at Hambleton, Linclon, Newmarket and other venues.  When her racing days were over, she herself birthed many good runners for the Fenwick family, who competed them in the 1760’s.


            Northumbrian fascination with racing, at least in traditional music, appears to have peaked with the compositions of Tyneside fiddler and sometime publican, James Hill (c. 1811-1853), renowned for his many and exceptionally crafted hornpipes, so much so that he earned the nickname, ‘the Newcastle Paganini’. Hill named several of his hornpipes after racehorses, although what exactly might have been his interest is not known.  He may have simply been a fan, or perhaps he wagered on his favourites, or, as a publican, he may have been involved in taking wagers. One of his hornpipes, called “The Spotted Bitch” is thought to have referred to a spotted racing pony (the last word of the title simply indicating gender).  It appears in the music manuscript of another Tyneside fiddler, John Moore, who began compiling his tunes in 1841, and who included many of Hill’s hornpipes.  Another hornpipe, “The Flying Dutchman,” is attributed to Hill in Kohler’s Violin Repository (Edinburgh 1881-1885). It honors a famous Yorkshire racehorse owned by Archibald William Montgomerie, the 13th Earl of Eglinton. The Flying Dutchman won title after title in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s, until finally beaten by Voltigeur in York in 1851.


A third tune is among the best of Hill’s exceptional compositions. “The Bee’s Wing” has become in modern times a popular fiddle hornpipe—despite its being in the less fashionable key of B flat—particularly with Scottish and Cape Breton fiddlers. It is attributed to Hill in Kohler’s Violin Repository and was named after a famous Newcastle racehorse, a mare. Bee’s Wing was foaled in 1833, sired by Dr. Syntax (1811-1838, who was a champion in his own right), and was bred by William Orde, a former Member of Parliament who had inherited an estate at Nunnykirk, near Morpeth.  Bee’s Wing won the Newcastle Gold Cup six times, the Doncaster Gold Cup four times, and the Ascot Gold Cup in 1842—in her career she started 64 times and won an astounding 51 races. So great was her fame that when she retired in 1842, to be put to pasture as a broodmare at Nunnykirk, Northumberland, the whole town of Morpeth turned out to greet her on her return.  A local pub was renamed in her honor (and it is possible that Hill had the pub in mind, as well as the racehorse, when he named his melody). “The Bee’s Wing” is one of the tunes sometimes requested by locals of Shetland fiddlers because "anything composed in a flat key is considered to be a real test of a fiddler's ability" (Cooke, 1986), and, indeed, the hornpipe can prove quite difficult to play. Virtuoso Irish fiddler Sean Maguire composed a famous set of variations to Hill’s melody, perhaps recognizing a challenge.  


               Finally, American fiddlers continue to celebrate two famous race horses in separate fiddle tunes, each of which has long a fiddle classic in the traditional repertoire. “Grey Eagle,” one of the standard square dance tunes in the key of A major, is frequently heard at mid-western fiddle contests (it is one of the tunes on Missouri fiddler Charlie Walden’s “100 Essential Missouri Fiddle Tunes). It appears in print relatively early: Boston publisher George H. Coe included it in a publication called Album of Music in 1876. Melodic material from “Grey Eagle” also appears in “Ostinelli’s Reel”, from Ryan’s Mammoth Collection of 1883. In oral tradition “Grey Eagle” was, however, heard all over the South and West, and was often considered part of the older fiddling repertoire. Arizona fiddler Kenner Kartchner, probably apocryphally, even maintained it had been played on wagon trains headed to Utah by Mormon fiddlers as the crossed the plains. It was one of the older tunes in fiddle repertory in Patrick County, southwest Va., before such tunes were supplanted by tunes more conducive to the fiddle/clawhammer banjo combination—Uncle Charlie Higgins, known for his older repertoire, played it. In the Deep South the melody was in the repertory of Alabama fiddler D. Dix Hollis (1861‑1927), who considered it one of "the good old tunes of long ago" (as quoted in the Opelika Daily News of April 17, 1926) {Joyce Cauthen, 1990}.


               Similar to many old-time American tunes, “Grey Eagle” exists in myriad versions and variants in the tradition, so that the title is sometimes qualified with the name of the source to differentiate it from other “Grey Eagle’s.” A ‘C’ major version was played by legendary fiddler J. Dedrick Harris, a Tennessee-born fiddler who played regularly with Bob Taylor when the latter ran for Governor of the state in the late 1800's. Harris moved to western N.C. in the 1920's and influenced a generation of fiddlers there. Guntown, Mississippi, fiddler W.E. Claunch recorded a version in the key of ‘G’ for the Library of Congress in 1939, and Sam Bayard noted ‘G’ versions from Pennsylvania fiddlers. One of the things that Professor Bayard found surprising about “Grey Eagle” was the tenacity of the title in the face of so many disparate versions.


               How old is it? Charles Wolfe (1982) first suggested in print that it was possibly named for a famous Kentucky race horse of the 1830’s. Writing in the now defunct occasional periodical The Devil’s Box, the late John Hartford expanded on this and found that the “Grey Eagle” title became attached to the tune following the famous race between horses known as “Grey Eagle” (1835-1863) and his opponent, “Wagner.” The race has been documented and took place in the Oakland Racetrack in Louisville in 1838 where “Grey Eagle,” a beautiful and talented Kentucky horse, set an American record for two mile heats in the sweepstakes that year. He was described as “a magnificent horse nearly sixteen hands in height, said to be of almost perfect symmetry, although scarcely equal in his quarters to his forehand, which is described as sumptuous. His color, as his name indicates, was a fine silvery gray.” Soon after the event a tune folio celebrating both racehorses appeared (a copy of which is in the possession of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro). Hartford, along with other writers noted the similarities between “Grey Eagle” and a popular older Scottish tune called “The Miller of Drone,” with the conclusion that the former is closely linked and derivative.


               The association with the Louisville race of 1838 also helps date the companion tune “Wagoner” (the horse was named ‘Wagner’, but the tune title has numerous spelling variants). This American melody in the key of ‘C’ major is  as well-disseminated in the United States as “Grey Eagle.” "Wagoner" (along with "Wagoner in B‑Flat") was recorded for the Library of Congress by musicologist/folklorist Vance Randolph from the playing of Ozark Mountain fiddlers in the early 1940's, and is a Mid-west standard. It was in repertoire of Jimmy Thompson 1848‑1931, a fiddler originally Texas and it was supposed to have been the first tune Uncle Jimmy played on Nashville’s WSM in November, 1923, in what was to become the very beginning of the Grand Old Opry (Wolfe, 1997).  Early field recordings of it were made by Herbert Halpert in 1939 from the playing of Lee County, Mississippi, fiddler W.E. Claunch. “Wagoner” was Kentucky fiddler John M. Salyer’s (1882-1952) favorite tune, according to his son Grover.


               Similar to “Grey Eagle,” there are antecedents for the melody named for Wagner. It was thought by Bayard (1981) and Christeson (1973) to have been derived from the "Belle of Claremont Hornpipe," although Bayard, digging deeper, finds the ‘Claremont’ hornpipe had origins in Scottish repertoire—the second strain he thought derived from “The Gaberlunzie-Man,” a piece in Thompson’s Orpheus Caledonius of 1725. The title is to be found in a number of variations, usually with a different place name before "Wagoner," such as "Tennessee Wagoner," "Georgia Wagoner," "Texas Wagoner," etc. However, it also appears under non-Wagoner titles as, for example, "The Hero" in George P. Knauff's 1839 publication Virginia Reels, volume II (Baltimore), and in some later mid-nineteenth century publications where it can be found as "Miss Brown's Reel." The John Lusk Band (a Black string band from the Cumberland Plateau region of Kentucky) played it under the title "Rolling River."


               Arizona fiddler Kenner C. Kartchner was convinced that it was written "in honor of (Texas cattleman) Dan Wagner years earlier, maybe one hundred years ago," an assumption that led him to maintain that the “Texas” appellation to the title was the correct one (although he acknowledged that "some call it 'Tennessee Wagoner,' reason not known" (Shumway, 1990). Wagner was a race horse, however, and a famous one at that; a long-necked, long-bodied stallion having muscular arms and wide hips and chestnut in color with a white blaze on his face. He was also called Egbert’s Wagner, and, although of Virginia stock, he stood with some note in Tennessee (if you’re counting, then the “Virginia” or “Tennessee” Wagner title is then best applied to the tune). Grey Eagle set records in 1838, but it was Wagner’s year in 1839, when he won the same Louisville sweepstakes.  The match race between Wagner and Grey Eagle in 1839 a direct precursor to today’s Kentucky Derby, and drew some 10,000 spectators. Not only did Wagner win in Louisville that day, but he beat Grey Eagle in another match a few days later. In all Wagner contested in 20 races, winning 14. The great 1839 race was described in rather heated prose by William T. Porter for the Turf Register of 1840:


By the most extraordinary exertions Wagner got up neck and neck

with “the gallant grey,” as they swung round the turn into to quarter

stretch. The feelings of the assembled thousands were wrought up by

a pitch absolutely painful—silence the most profound reigned over

that vast assembly, as these noble animals sped on as if life and death

called forth their utmost energies. Both jockeys had their whiphands

at work, and at every stroke, each spur, with a desperate stab, was

buried to the rowel-head. Grey Eagle, for the first hundred yards, was

clearly gaining; but in another instant Wagner was even with him. Both

were out and doing their best. It was anybody’s race yet! Now Wagner,

now Grey Eagle, has the advantage. It will be a dead heat? “See! Grey

Eagle’s got him!” “No, Wagner’s ahead!” A moment ensues—the people

Shout—hearts throb—ladies faint—a thrill of emotion, and the race is

over! Wagner wins by a neck, in 7.44, the best race ever ran south of

the Potomac…


            Wagner was ridden by a black jockey name Cato (nicknamed Kate)—a slave. Cato gained his freedom that day, and his master claimed the $14,000 purse (although Cato too was given a “satchel full of the prize money” along with his manumition). Grey Eagle was ridden by a white jockey, Stephen Welch.  The prize money was dwarfed by the betting action stretching from New York to New Orleans, and the race became notorious because “more money, Negroes and horses were wagered and lost” than in any other race in the country.


Both animals became sires of other thoroughbreds in the course of time. Grey Eagle was put to stud at the farm of J.B. Poyntz, near Maysvile. Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller, the most famous horse of the Civil War, was the son of Grey Eagle and was born in Mason County, Kentucky, in 1856. Today, nearly all modern American Saddlebreds trace their ancestry to Grey Eagle.





Andrew Kuntz

8 Veatch Street

Wappingers Falls, NY 12590